Small launcher company Virgin Orbit is taking some of its rocket launches to the UK. The company, a spinoff of space tourism venture Virgin Galactic, announced today that it is aiming to conduct missions of its new rocket, LauncherOne, from the Cornwall Airport Newquay on the southern tip of England by 2021. That will give Virgin Orbit at least two places to launch from — including its primary site in Mojave, California — as the company continues to search for other takeoff locations.
If all goes according to plan, Virgin Orbit’s launches could be the first flights to go to space from British soil. Though the UK did announce this weekend that it intends to build an additional launch site in Scotland sometime in the early 2020s. However, Cornwall Airport is already an active commercial airport. This would be one of the few locations in the world that would serve as both an active airport and spaceport, accommodating airplane launches and rocket launches in tandem.
Unlike most other launch companies, Virgin Orbit’s rockets don’t take off directly from the ground. Instead, LauncherOne takes off from under the wing of a 747 airplane called Cosmic Girl. The airplane is meant to loft LauncherOne to a high altitude, where the rocket then releases and ignites its main engine. It then climbs on its own to space and deposits its small satellite payloads into orbit. A few other launch systems take off this way, such as the Pegasus rocket from Orbital ATK (which was recently acquired by Northrop Grumman). However, air launches are still fairly rare.
Virgin Orbit argues that this air launch approach makes it faster and cheaper to take off from multiple sites around the world. For other rocket companies, launching from a new location means building an entirely new launchpad with fuel tanks and metal structures to accommodate future missions. “Whereas for us, we don’t have a launchpad,” Will Pomerantz, the vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, tells The Verge. “The launchpad is the airplane. So you don’t have to lay all that ground infrastructure.” Pomerantz says that after getting Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne to a launch location, only about four specialized trucks are needed at the site to prepare the vehicles for flight.
Having multiple sites to launch from opens up more possibilities for different kinds of satellite missions, says Pomerantz. For instance, launching from the Mojave Air and Space Port, Virgin Galactic’s headquarters, is great for sending satellites into orbits that go over the Earth’s poles. Located next to the West Coast, rockets can safely fly south over open ocean, to get into an orbit that runs from north to south. This is a preferred orbit for many satellites that take pictures of Earth because certain polar orbits can allow for probes to fly over the same patch of the planet at the same time each day.
The Cornwall site in the UK will allow Virgin Galactic to go to slightly different types of orbits, though it’s also in a good location to send satellites near the poles. A wide-open Atlantic Ocean is located west of the launch site, so the rocket could easily fly south from there as well. Pomerantz says Virgin Orbit is still trying to determine which orbits will be best to achieve from Cornwall. But the UK-based location may also be attractive to satellite operators who work in Europe simply because it’s nearby. European manufacturers may not want to ship their satellites all the way to California, as the payload could get damaged during transit and the shipment may eat up valuable time. “It might be valuable to have the launch system come to you rather than have the satellites go to the launch system,” says Pomerantz.
Meanwhile, Virgin Orbit is still on the lookout for other places its LauncherOne could take off from. Earlier this month, the company announced an agreement with Italian company Siteal to look at the possibility of launching from Italy, though the logistics of that haven’t been confirmed yet. Plus, Virgin Orbit is also actively on the lookout for a place to launch its rockets eastward. To launch communications satellites, a polar orbit doesn’t quite work, since no one really lives near the poles. Instead, communications satellites typically fly in eastward orbits near the equator so that they are closer to more populated areas. To get into these kinds of orbits, Virgin Orbit may want to launch from a popular place like Florida so that it can fly east over open ocean near the equator.
However, Virgin Orbit has yet to announce any new official launch sites other than Cornwall and Mojave, but the company may soon enough. “The idea of having a California location and then maybe somewhere on the East Coast and then maybe on an island somewhere would allow us to really tailor each mission so that the performance for that mission is optimized for what that customer wants,” says Pomerantz.
Before all this can happen, though, Virgin Orbit needs to get its LauncherOne into space. The rocket, which is optimized for sending small satellites into orbit, is nearing its final stages of development. Meanwhile, the company is in the middle of outfitting Cosmic Girl with the equipment needed to carry LauncherOne to its intended deployment height. Pomerantz says the plan is to send at least a couple LauncherOne flights to orbit by the end of this year.